The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions


Carl Sagan was a hero to most of us who in one way or another like to watch the skies. The mellifluous-voiced, turtleneck-and-corduroy-wearing astronomer inspired my generation to care about space, about our planet, and about our future as a spacefaring civilization. He was not only a fashion plate but also a prophet of what I call the “scientific sublime”—a vision of the Cosmos and our own almost spiritual connection to it, the “spirit” being not God but our very own capacity for curiosity and awe. Sagan was able to do what few scientists have ever been capable of: make science something close to a secular religion.

Among the things to be awed by, Sagan always emphasized, was the overwhelming likelihood that we share the cosmos with countless other civilizations. Although the expression for which he is most famous, “billions and billions,” was actually spoken by Johnny Carson in parody of him, Sagan did love to stagger the imagination with large numbers, and large numbers were the basis of his faith that we are not alone. In 1962, Sagan gave a lecture at the American Rocket Society in Los Angeles, in which he dazzled his audience with the Drake equation, which divides the 100 billion stars in our galaxy by the number of main-sequence stars like our own, divided by an estimate of the number of life-conducive planets, divided by an estimate of the probability of life arising on them, and so on, arriving at a figure of more or less 1 million technological civilizations in our galaxy. Some of these are bound to be millions or, yes, even billions of years in advance of us.

Nevertheless, Sagan remains an ambivalent figure for ufology. Throughout his career he was publicly outspoken against belief that UFO sightings were connected to any of those million technological civilizations that statistics predicted. On the subject, he again and again said that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”—and he asserted that the latter just did not exist for the UFO phenomenon. Sightings of craft were explainable as misidentified meteorological phenomena; abduction stories reflected superstitious and religious beliefs and the “madness of crowds.” In the search for extraterrestrial intelligences, Sagan’s money was solely on the SETI program—scanning the heavens for radio signals.

Yet Sagan did not deny that those civilizations broadcasting their existence in radio would also be spacefaring, and that they would have even come here, probably many times in our history:

Let’s say that each of these civilizations sends out one interstellar expedition per year,” he said. “That means that every star, such as our sun, would be visited at least once every million years. In some systems where these beings found life, they would make more frequent visits. There’s a strong probability, then, that they have visited earth every few thousand years. It is not out of the question that artifacts of these visits still exist or even that some kind of base is maintained, possibly automatically, within the solar system, to provide continuity for successive expeditions. Because of weathering and the possibility of detection and interference by the inhabitants of earth it would be preferable not to erect such a base on the earth’s surface. The moon seems one reasonable alternative. Forthcoming photographic reconnaissance of the moon from space vehicles—particularly of the back—might bear these possibilities in mind.

One would think that Sagan, who even thought it possible that there could be alien bases on the moon, wouldn’t be so hostile to the idea that maybe an alien technological presence could be behind some UFO sightings.

It has been suggested that Sagan’s dismissals of UFOs were only for public consumption and that his true beliefs on the matter were different. Paola Leopizzi-Harris, an Italian writer who worked with famous UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek in the early 80s, recently related the following in an interview: “My recollection is that Hynek said it was backstage of one of the many Johnny Carson Tonight shows Sagan did. He basically said (to Hynek) in 1984, ‘I know UFOs are real, but I would not risk my research (College) funding, as you do, to talk openly about them in public.’ ”

I’m not particularly trustful of this single account of a nearly 30-year-old conversation backstage at the Tonight Show. But I do think that, if not money, something besides the claimed “lack of evidence” (he must have been exposed to the voluminous evidence by people like Hynek) deflected the astronomer’s interest away from UFOs. I think that “something” was probably nothing else than the sublime faith he preached. “Once every few thousand years” is mysterious and awe inspiring. So is an ancient alien base on the moon. UFOs buzzing around our planet here and now isn’t—there’s something even cheap about it. It’s a radically different perspective.

This difference in perspective is important, because embedded in either state of affairs (they are far away, they are here) is an implicit ethics, a map for how humanity should behave going forward.

If there is any single monument to and symbol of Sagan’s viewpoint on the character of our non-aloneness, and of the ethics embedded in his sublime view, it is Voyager I. That probe, launched in 1977, yielded the most astonishing information to date of the gas giant worlds that dominate our solar system, and the most astonishing close-up pictures, but its symbolic role transcended its scientific function. For one thing, Voyager I bore a gold record containing greetings in numerous earth languages, as well as hundreds of photographs of our planet and our species. Sagan chaired the committee that assembled this material.

Certainly Sagan knew the likelihood that extraterrestrial audiophiles would happen upon that lp a million years down the road and sit down for a listen on their hi-fis was slim to none. That greeting to space was really a message to humans: that we are not alone and that our destiny as a species is to be part of the galactic community, to join ETs as players on the galactic stage.

Voyager renewed its symbolic role, in a slightly more profound way, when it completed its mission and headed toward the edge of the solar system in 1990. At Sagan’s request, NASA swiveled the probe’s cameras back for a last photograph of Earth, from a distance of nearly 4 billion miles. Its “pale blue dot” photograph of a 1-pixel earth against the black backdrop of space served Sagan (and later Al Gore) as a powerful metaphor for how precious and vulnerable our world is. If we don’t set aside our differences, put childhood away as a species, and fix things, we might not survive. (Sagan’s favorite refrain was the qualification he attached to every promise of our interstellar future: “If we do not destroy ourselves…”)

The thing is, implicit in these paradoxical symbols of puniness and heroic striving is the fact that we, and only we, can achieve these things: save ourselves, save our planet, and evolve to the next stage in our social and technological evolution. A sense that our neighbors are distant in space and time motivates us to take responsibility for the human journey. Stick a little flying saucer or two into that picture, next to that dot, inspires a return to childhood. Although I am pretty convinced that (for better or worse), ETs are here (and have always been here), we can’t think of them as our parents.



I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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